Santa Barbara is trying to get shoppers downtown by extending free parking-lot time from 75 minutes to two and half hours.

With Friday afternoon’s shifting winds putting much of Santa Barbara in an even higher state of Thomas-fire induced anxiety, Santa Barbara city officials and business leaders are scrambling to do what they can to encourage shoppers to come downtown. Christmas is just 10 days away, and Christmas sales can make or break fourth quarter performance for most retailers. Conspicuously missing from any encouraging missives is the term “fire sale,” for obvious reasons.

City Hall clean-up crews, working with the Downtown Organization and private contractors, have swept and hosed down the downtown sidewalks to eradicate as much of the accumulated ash as possible. And city parking lots — while no longer free as they were for four days this week — now offer two-and-a-half hours of free parking as opposed to the usual 75 minutes. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider sent out a Facebook blast showing a passel of neatly wrapped Christmas presents, encouraging those with shopping still to do to do so downtown and not online.

No doubt Friday’s clearer-than-usual skies have helped, too. For the first time in several days, the ambient optics offer a sense of respite and optimism. Earlier this week, the look was a combination of Good Friday meets Ash Wednesday with a full solar eclipse thrown in for good measure. Ken Oplinger, Chamber of Commerce czar, estimates half of downtown retailers may have shut their doors for business during the worst of it. Kate Schwab of the Downtown Organization (DO) suggested that estimate may be high, but she acknowledged “a big chunk” had closed down.

Oplinger said he’s hoping the state and federal emergency response funds can be used to help underwrite marketing efforts to get downtown back on its feet. In the meantime, his organization and the DO are sending out email blasts announcing the names and hours of any and all downtown businesses keeping their lights on. “Many businesses are still open even though their doors are closed,” stressed Schwab. “Most places are open.” She noted that some businesses, like 33 Jewels, are offering customers mulled cider and truffles for their browsing pleasure. Oplinger said he’s hearing from some hotels that customers are canceling reservations made as far out as January and February. He added that lower-priced hotels and motels have actually picked up bookings courtesy of evacuees and firefighters.

Restaurants, he said, were hammered by as much as 50 percent, those with outdoor patio spaces especially so. Wholesale cancellation of holiday parties didn’t help either. Oplinger said he’s hoping people who are looking to help out in some fashion might consider coming downtown and shopping. “We’re asking people not to do their shopping on line,” he said. “Help the local businesses.”

In its announcement of extended free parking hours, City Hall sent out an email blast reading, “As crews tirelessly battle the fire, the Santa Barbara holiday spirit will not be extinguished. With over one week left for Christmas shopping, come downtown to support your local business.”

There’s only so much free parking, clean streets, and plucky spirit can do, however, should the fierce downslope winds predicted for late Friday materialize. “Hey, there’s only so much I can spin,” said Schwab. Till then, she urged prospective shoppers to check out her organization’s website to see which businesses are open.


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